13. The Holy Spirit
I believe in the Holy Spirit.
The third article is too briefly enunciated in the Apostles’ Creed to be of significant help. This exposition will therefore be based on the expanded and more descriptive statement that is found in the Nicene Creed of AD 325. There we are told that the Holy Spirit is ‘the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son], who, with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken to the prophets’.
First, we notice that every effort is made to clarify the status of the third Person of the Trinity. During the years before the Nicene Creed was formulated, there were a number of heresies about the Holy Spirit circulating in the Churches. Some taught that the Holy Spirit is just another name for the Son. These ‘theologians’ therefore do not embrace a trinitarian concept of God, but a binitarian one. Others, not knowing what to do with the Holy Spirit, maintain that the Spirit was an angel, a created being who is inferior to the Father and the Son.
Against all these erroneous ways of understanding the person and status of the Holy Spirit, the Nicene Creed, in its carefully worded statement, maintains emphatically that the Spirit is co-equal with the Father and the Son.
This is done by several important assertions. The first is the statement that the Holy Spirit is the ‘giver of life’. By this the Creed maintains the creative role of the Holy Spirit, thereby asserting his Deity. The Holy Spirit is not a created being, but the third Person of the Trinity who was responsible for the creation of the world. The Creed thus makes the same assertion about the Spirit as it does about the Father and the Son. The Creed had attributed the coming into being of the world to the creative work of the Father and the Son. And now the Creed makes it perfectly clear that the Spirit is in no way inferior to the first two Persons of the Trinity but is co-equal with them by describing the Spirit as the ‘giver of life’.
Insofar as the Holy Spirit is the Spirit who indwells believers and the Church, he continues to inspire the work of the Church. He continues to empower them and direct them in God’s mission in the world.
By asserting that the Spirit ‘proceeds from the Father [and the Son]’ the Creed further stresses the deity of the Spirit. To modern readers, this statement may not appear to have sufficiently achieved its purpose. But for the crafters of the Nicene Creed, and for the Christian Church of the fourth century, the term ‘procession’ points to the fact that the Spirit was not a creature. Just as the Son was ‘begotten’ of the Father, so the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father. If the term ‘begotten’ shows that the Son was not a creature, but a member of the Godhead, the term ‘procession’ achieves the same purpose with regard to the Spirit.
And if even this is not enough to clarify the status of the Spirit, the Creed makes a final attempt in its assertion that the Spirit is to be worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son. Such an act would smack of blasphemy and idolatry, unless the Spirit is co-equal with the Father and the Son.
Perceptive readers would have noticed that I have enclosed the phrase ‘and the Son’ in parenthesis. This phrase was not part of the original version of the Creed, which was formulated in AD 325, but was inserted later in the year AD 589. This revision was the result of a unilateral decision of the Western Church, prompted by its struggle with a group of Spanish Arians. The Eastern Orthodox Church objected to this addition firstly because its insertion into the Creed was not an ecumenical decision, and secondly – and more importantly – because this phrase distorts the doctrine of the Trinity.
Space does not allow the discussion of the intricate details of the controversy. What is pertinent here is that the inclusion of this phrase is controversial, and that it is still an enormous obstacle to ecumenical relations between the Western and Eastern Churches today.
Again, for reasons I cannot go into in the context of this essay, I am of the opinion that the Western addition is unofficial and unwarranted. Unofficial because unilateral revisions cannot be entertained in an ecumenical Creed (such acts, if allowed, would fly in the face of the ecumenicity of the Church and the ecumenical nature of the document in question). And unwarranted because this clause is not necessary to combat the vestiges of Arianism in Spain. The original wording of the Creed, which was formulated to refute the teachings of the early Arians, is adequate in challenging later manifestations of the heresy.
We leave this discussion to focus our attention on an entirely different subject: the phenomenon of the pentecostal and charismatic renewals and its relationship with the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Can these movements be said to be the work of the Holy Spirit? This question goes right into the heart of the issue, compelling us to make a theological judgement regarding these movements.
From their inception until today, this question has been a subject of investigation and debate among theologians from the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. This has resulted in a proliferation of literature on the subject, ranging from scholarly articles and monographs to popular paperbacks. In the main, most theologians have concluded that these movements are historical manifestations of the work of the Spirit in the Church. On the evangelical front, theologians like James Packer and Michael Green have in different ways also argued for the validity of these movements.
This consensus notwithstanding, theologians are critical of some aspects of the movements, concerning both their doctrines and practises. Criticisms are of course to be welcomed, although they must be carefully weighed and assessed. The Church must never naïvely mistake all criticisms for scepticism or mischief.There is an incipient but fast developing sub-culture in the Church, especially among its leadership, which politicises all criticism by portraying them categorically as negative and destructive. The emergence of this trend signals the fact that the Church and its leadership have already given in by patterning their approach after the totalitarianism that is evident in secular corporate cultures.
But the Spirit is also the Spirit of Truth, who leads the Church into all truth. Thus the Spirit is profoundly involved not just in the missionary work of the Church; he is also involved in the Church’s theological work … and in the Church’s priests, pastors, preachers, and missionaries.
This line of thinking is as naïve as it is dangerous. It was the great twentieth century theologian, Karl Barth – perhaps the greatest that the previous century has produced – who stressed that the Church of every age must be self-critical. Once the Church fails to be self-critical, once it becomes too satisfied with itself or accepts teachings and even authority uncritically, then it begins to suffer from atrophy. This emphasis can be traced to the Reformers – especially Luther and Calvin – who never tire of reminding the Church of the constant need for reformation. And reformation implies that the Church always adopts a selfcritical stance towards its own condition. The Church becomes intellectually and theologically weak and flabby when it fails to exercise its muscles of theological and spiritual discernment!
This brings us to the final statement in the Nicene Creed regarding the Holy Spirit: who has spoken to the prophets’. If the previous statements describe the Spirit’s person, this last statement describes his activity. The Spirit speaks to (and through) the prophets, and, by extension, he is the divine inspiration behind the human writers of scripture. But the work of the Spirit is not just confined to this. Insofar as the Holy Spirit is the Spirit who indwells believers and the Church, he continues to inspire the work of the Church. He continues to empower them and direct them in God’s mission in the world.
But the Spirit is also the Spirit of Truth, who leads the Church into all truth. Thus the Spirit is profoundly involved not just in the missionary work of the Church; he is also involved in the Church’s theological work. He is involved in the work of the Church’s theologians (who may not always be the ‘professional’ theologians teaching in universities!), and in the Church’s priests, pastors, preachers, and missionaries.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the Spirit of Truth works exclusively among the Church’s theologians and clergy, important though they are. The Spirit is at work in the whole Church, that is, in the universal Church, for he is the ecumenical Spirit, who brings all of God’s people to the truth. This means that the theological work of the Church although always contextual is however never parochial. The Church engages the questions posed by its own particular context by marshalling the theological wisdom of the entire household of faith, both past and present, and across the denominations and traditions.
The Spirit is at work in the whole Church, that is, in the universal Church, for he is the ecumenical Spirit, who brings all of God’s people to the truth …The Church engages the questions posed by its own particular context by marshalling the theological wisdom of the entire household of faith, both past and present, and across the denominations and traditions.
To confess that we believe in the Holy Spirit ‘who has spoken to the prophets’ is to embrace an ecumenical theology in the best sense of the term. It is upon this understanding of the Holy Spirit that we are able to construct the biblical teaching concerning the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, which is the next theme of the Creed.
Dr. Roland Chia is Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Lecturer in Historical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.